Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartets Volume 4
String Quartet No.2 in G, Op.18/2 (1798/1800) [25:23]
String Quartet No.12 in E flat, Op.127 (1824/25) [39:44]
String Quartet No.7 in F, Op.59/1 ‘Rasumovsky No.1’ (1806) [47:05]
Elias String Quartet [Sarah Bitlloch, Donald Grant (violin); Martin Saving
(viola); Marie Bitlloch (cello)]
rec. live Wigmore Hall, London, 1 November 2014. DDD
WIGMORE HALL LIVE WHLIVE0089
[65:07 + 47:05]
String Quartets Volume 5
String Quartet No.5 in A, Op.18/5 (1798/1800) [30:19]
String Quartet No.9 in C, Op.59/3 ‘Rasumovsky No. 3’ (1806) [34:01]
String Quartet No.14 in c-sharp minor, Op.131 (1826) [43:46]
Elias String Quartet
rec. live Wigmore Hall, London, 10 January 2015. DDD.
WIGMORE HALL LIVE WHLIVE0092
[64:30 + 43:46]
String Quartets Volume 6
String Quartet No.6 in B flat, Op.18/6 [28:17]
String Quartet No.8 in e minor, Op.59/2 ‘Rasumovsky No. 2’ [38:00]
String Quartet No.16 in F, Op.135 [32:26]
Elias String Quartet
rec. live Wigmore Hall, London, 7 March 2015. DDD.
WIGMORE HALL LIVE WHLIVE0093
[68:13 + 35:51]
Having been impressed from the start of this series – I made Volume 1 a
Recording of the Month –
– I’m very pleased to be able to review the last three releases. My Seen
and Heard colleague Claire Seymour was also impressed by the concert which
forms Volume 2 –
(WHLIVE0085, Op.18/1, Quintet Op.29, Op.132). All six volumes contain
music from Beethoven’s first forays into the format, Op.18/1-6, his middle
period ‘Rasumovsky’ quartets, Op.59/1-3, Op.74 and Op.95, and his late
quartets, Op.127, Op.130, Op.131, Op.132, Op.133 and Op.135.
To begin at the beginning with the Op.18 quartets. These already marked an
advance on the quartets of Haydn and Mozart and must have set some heads
shaking in polite Viennese society. Some recordings play the music pretty
straight and miss its revolutionary nature. The Elias Quartet give it a
little less of a push than the award-winning Belcea Quartet, whose complete
set of the quartets is such an attractive bargain (ALPHA262, 8 CDs, around
£34 but on offer for £25.50 until mid-January 2019;
– review of earlier release
DL News 2014/8), but they nevertheless do bring out the spirit of these works. What I
said of Op.18/4 in my review of Volume 1 applies to No. 2 (Volume 4) and
Nos. 5 and 6 (Volumes 5 and 6 respectively): The Elias Quartet don’t
over-emphasise either the Mozart/Haydn debt or the foretaste of the late
quartets, though both aspects are made apparent from their strong and exuberant
To pick almost at random: the finale of Op.18/5 spills out of the speakers,
not least because the recording is extremely good for a live performance.
(NB: those averse to applause should be aware that a few seconds are
retained.) They take a few seconds longer than the Belcea Quartet, but
sound just as much as if they are enjoying themselves. If the first violin
comes over prominently, that’s part of the deal with these early works.
That’s certainly not to say that the Elias Quartet don’t find depth in
these quartets; among the slow movements, that of Op.18/6 is particularly
affecting, with considerably more room to breathe than the Belcea Quartet
give it. The ensuing scherzo brings an equally fine account of music
in a different mood, again a little slower than the Belcea performance but
no less lively. Here, too, is the young Beethoven anticipating his older
self with music which seems frequently to be curling back on itself, a
feature well brought out by both performances.
The Belcea Quartet follow Op.18/5 with the Große Fuge, Op.133; it’s
a fine performance but the music is light years removed from what we have
just been listening to, especially as the Belcea performance of Op. 133 slaps you in the
face and leaves you in no doubt that this is powerful music. The
Elias recording on Volume 1 sounds more like the unravelling of a massive
puzzle. Both interpretations are valid, but the Elias Quartet remind us more of
the composer’s debt to Bach, something which is not always fully
appreciated: I once read an article by an academic who maintained that
Beethoven never composed a fugue! I hasten to add that it’s Bach completely
re-imagined. Incidentally, the Elias Quartet give us Op.130 twice over - on
Volume 1 with its original finale the Große Fuge, on Volume 3 with
the shorter replacement.
I’m pleased that the six volumes of the Elias Quartet’s survey mostly place
the quartets in chronological order. (The unavoidable exception on Volume 4
is necessitated by the length of Op.59/1.) It would have been possible to have
squeezed the music onto five 2-CD sets but that would have necessitated
shifting the order around. In any case, these sets are sold, at least in the
UK, for not much
more than the price of a single disc. You should be able to find them for
under £13: beware of those who are charging much more - £17.92 in one case
and even £15.98 for a download.
Thus, on Wigmore Hall Live Op.18/5 is followed by Op.59/3 and Op.18/6 by
Op.59/2. If the adagio ma non troppo of Op.18/6 is impressive, the molto adagio of Op.59/2 is even more so in the hands of the Elias
Quartet. Once again, they give the music a little more space than the
Belcea Quartet and it benefits, as it also does from a similar tempo from
another of my top recommendations, the Takács Quartets (Decca 4708472:
Op.59 and Op.74, 2 CDs or complete Beethoven Quartets 4831607, download
only around £37 in 16-bit lossless1).
Always prepared to kill two or more birds with one stone, I’m catching up
with a Supraphon recording of quartets No.12 (Op.127 [34:32]) and No.16
(Op.135 [21:54]) from the Škampa Quartet recorded in March 2000, now
download only from some dealers, though others still have the CD (SU3464-2
The first time that I heard Op.127 it literally stopped me in my tracks;
how could such advanced-sounding music have been written as early as 1824?
That was from the Budapest Quartet’s stereo remake for CBS, which is no
longer available, though their earlier mono version is. I’ve been searching
for a performance of similar intensity ever since and the Elias Quartet
don’t provide it, at least not initially.
What they offer instead is a performance of a different kind of intensity,
stressing the aching beauty of the music, the thoughts that lie too deep
for tears. That, too, is inherent in the writing, especially in the slow
movement, so movingly presented here. Maybe it’s just not possible to bring
out both the intensity and the beauty of this quartet on this side of eternity, but of the recordings that I know,
the Takács Quartet come closest to achieving the double honours (Decca
4708492, 3 CDs, Complete Late Quartets, mid-price, or 4831607, Complete
Quartets, as above). If it’s beauty of performance that you prize
above all, the Elias Quartet are right for you, even if they don’t quite
achieve the punch that I was looking for, especially in the first movement.
In fact, that steely intensity, still intermingled with lyricism, does surface in
the third movement and the finale, so overall this is a win-win performance
that captures the spirit of what must have perplexed those first listeners
– Beethoven’s development of a good tune which he then throws away or
twists back upon itself with angular and hectic writing.
The Škampa Quartet adopt faster tempi throughout, losing some of the effect
of the maestoso marking for the first movement but gaining by making
the music seem rather more off-beat than the Elias Quartet, albeit without
the sheer power of the best performances. Peter Grahame Woolf in his review
of this album noted that those who sought a greater sense of struggle in
these quartets would be less impressed than he was, and I have to place
myself in that category. Nor do the Škampa Quartet, for all the considerable
accomplishment of their playing, achieve the same aching beauty as the
Elias. PGW is not alone in admiring this recording, but I thought it
overall just a little too perfunctory.
Not only do the Škampa Quartet adopt faster tempi, they also observe far
fewer of the repeats in Op.135, especially in movements three and four,
reducing a work which from the Elias runs to over half an hour by almost
ten minutes. They are not alone in this: the sturdy and reliable Kodály
Quartet on Naxos (8.554594, with No.14) come in about the same time, as do
the Emerson Quartet (DG 4743412, budget-price 3-CD set of the Late Quartets
review), the Belcea Quartet and the Cremona Quartet (Audite 92.680 SACD, with
Nos. 6 and 11 –
DL News 2014/8), while the Lindsay Quartet (Decca/ClassicFM, budget-price download, with
No.15, 4820521), the Takács Quartet and the Quartetto Italiano halve the difference
(Decca Duo, budget twofer, with Nos. 12 and 13 and the Große Fuge –
of alternative coupling).
Op.135 is the pinnacle of Beethoven’s achievement even more than the late
piano sonatas and I want to savour every minute of it, repeats included, so
the Elias Quartet start with a big advantage from my perspective. In the
opening movement they play by the book and the result is straight, not to
say a little straight-laced, but the affective account of the slow movement
more than atones; you won’t find the cantante e tranquillo marking
better observed in any other performance.
That’s the case with the adagio ma non troppo of Op.127, too;
indeed, the slow movements of all the late quartets sound excellent in the
hands of the Elias Quartet. The Belcea Quartet, too, give the slow movement
of Op.127 plenty of space to develop, though that of Op.135 is a little
less tranquillo than from the Elias Quartet. The Cremona Quartet on
Volume 2 of their complete series (Audite 21454, 8 SACDs -
of Volumes 5-7) take a whole three minutes
less in this movement, and though they can’t be accused of sounding
perfunctory, they give the music less than ideal penetrative power (Audite
92.681, SACD or lossless download from
eclassical.com2, with Op.59/2).
The finale of Op.135 receives one of Beethoven’s somewhat enigmatic
markings, Der schwer gefaßte Entschluß, as if he couldn’t decide how
to compose it; then he wrote Muß es sein – Es muß sein, must
it be – it must be. It’s clear that he intended to break the spell of tranquillity and,
if the Elias Quartet do so a little less stridently than some, they
certainly wake you up from your reverie and go on to lead you a merry
dance. At times Beethoven makes the players sound almost as if they are
sawing at their strings and the Elias don’t baulk at virtuoso renderings of
these passages. For once the applause, replete with whistles and shouts, is
allowed to run on.
The Cremona Quartet on Volume 1 of their complete Beethoven series (Audite
92.680, or complete quartets, as above) are
marginally less cantante in the slow movement of Op.135, though they
offer a vigorous account of the finale to match – but not excel – the Elias
Quartet. They lose out, however, by omitting repeats, so that the finale in
particular, at 6:56 against the Elias Quartet’s 12:20, is over before one
has even got into the swing of Beethoven’s style. For those seeking a
complete set of the Beethoven quartets plus the String Quintet at
an attractive price, the download versions of the Cremona Quartet complete
set are very
tempting: nine hours in mp3 from
at £8.99, lossless with pdf booklet from
£16.19. (Don’t dream of paying £76.70 for the same thing or, indeed, £71
for the SACDs, which are available direct from
Even the Takács Quartet fall somewhat short here in the matter of repeats.
period instruments will turn to the Quatuor Mosaïques (Late Quartets: Naïve
V5445, 3 CDs, super-budget price). There’s a great deal to be said for gut
strings, as in the finale of Op.135, but even they give us short measure in
I've mentioned the Lindsay Quartet super-budget
download of Op.135 and Op.136. Those looking
for a further bargain will find their very accomplished recordings of Op.127 and Op.131 on
another Classic FM release (4820622): splendid
performances available for just £4.95 (mp3) or £6.19 (lossless) from
Presto; similarly Op.130 with Große Fuge (4820623). I recommended
4820622 alongside a coupling of Op.59/3 and
Op.131 from the young Aris Quartet in
Autumn 2017. Without going into detailed comparison, the Elias
Quartet also offer just as thoroughly convincing an account of Op.131.
I’ve already mentioned the Wigmore Hall recording quality – very good for
live performances – and the booklets, presumably derived from the programme
notes, are very useful. There’s certainly no detriment in terms of
quality of performance, recording or presentation from the fact that these
are live performances.
All in all, unless you are totally averse to live recordings with a modicum
of (well-deserved) applause after each work, this is a set of the complete
Beethoven quartets at the very top of the list. The Belcea Quartet can be
obtained as a set less expensively, even after the current offer expires.
It’s regrettable that the complete Takács Quartet set disappeared so
quickly on CD1; the download is not exactly a spectacular
bargain (the lowest price for lossless is £37.66, with booklet). Overall
the Takács recordings remain my benchmark but there are times, as in the
finale of Op.135, where I prefer the Elias Quartet.
Of course, there never was going to be a ‘best buy’, but the Elias Quartet
are amongst the best, one of a select handful of recordings.
The new ‘Recommended’ accolade applies to the series as a whole.
The attractive 7CD + blu-ray audio + DVD set on 4831317 seems to have
disappeared almost as soon as it was released.
But bear in mind the very attractively priced download of Op.127 and Op.131.
Disappointingly, there is no 24-bit and no booklet, both usually available from this